Seth Worley and Zac Dixon on their 3D-animated mystery series “The Carrier.”
“It starts as mail delivery and gradually becomes the weirdest game you’ve ever played.” That’s how Seth Worley describes the original concept behind “The Carrier,” the animated, mystery-drama series he created with Zac Dixon.
“We took that boring mail/game concept and turned it into the wildest ride possible with aliens, cults and serial killers,” says Worley, who directs commercials for Bad Robot, Sandwich, and is also a senior content manager at Maxon. Created using Cinema 4D, Unity, ZBrush and Premiere, “The Carrier” stars Emmy-winner Tony Hale as the lone postal worker in the small Alaskan town of Eedelay, where mail carriers routinely go missing.
Worley and Dixon are longtime friends who have collaborated on many creative projects over the years. “The Carrier” got its start when Dixon, founder of IV studio and director of commercials for Nike, Amazon, Bad Robot and Reddit, asked Worley if he wanted to help make a narrative game to pitch.
“IV Studio made a game called “Bouncy Smash” a few years ago, and I realized I loved making video games,” Dixon says, explaining how after they ditched the game idea, they considered making a sci-fi short. But after more consideration, a TV mini-series seemed like a better way to go.
So they wrote a pilot and started dreaming up shot ideas for a series that explores the pasts of the disappeared mail carriers, probing the difference between isolation and solitude. “The theme of “isolation versus solitude” began to emerge as we were writing from the perspective of characters working in one of the most remote (and lonely) jobs in the world,” Worley explains. “For some it was a place of rest and escape from a past life; for others it was a lonely and alienating experience.”
Nailing the Look and Building a Team
Dixon enjoyed learning Unity to make “Bouncy Smash” so much, he and Worley decided to use it for look development for “The Carrier,” and wound up using it for the whole project.
“We wanted to show what is possible for filmmaking in a real-time engine,” Worley says. So IV Studio built out their own Unity pipeline to create the series’ trailer, assembling a loose storyboard on Boords while wondering if there was a style they could love in Unity.
“We wanted fairly realistic animation, so the audience could feel the drama happening,” says Dixon, adding that they were inspired by the cinematic approach to visuals in games, such as “Inside” and “Firewatch.”
Though they initially worried about finding enough artists to work in Unity, they ended up finding it easy to assemble a small team to work in real time, including Dixon. Other artists used C4D for making trees, hard-surface modeling, layout, and rigging and animation of things like snowmobiles.
“A lot of the team was able to work in traditional tools like ZBrush, Maya, Photoshop, and C4D while our real-time crew was pretty small,” Dixon explains. “All of those normal programs import into Unity fairly seamlessly, so we were able to go after the artists we wanted to work with even though they hadn't worked in this way before.”
ZBrush was used for sculpting props and characters, including the alien. Character design was led by IV Studio’s Art Director Michael Cribbs, who took the concepts the team came up with and handed them to Limkuk, who sculpted them in ZBrush. Next, characters were rigged in Maya and brought into Unity.
“We really wanted to push some stylized proportions into our characters while staying away from anything that looked too childish,” Dixon says. “This is a show about murder after all, so it was a big challenge to tow that line.”
With Unity serving as the project’s hub, Worley and Dixon narrowed their shot list, making sure they hit major plot points and emotional beats. Following an arc from “mundane to insane,” as they called it, they wanted a good mix of shot types from wide to close-ups.
Though they bought some items online to save time and budget, the team created most everything seen in the trailer from scratch, including a vast amount of concept art, a mailroom, a mysterious cabin, many different props and a whole lot of trees, rocks and mountains.
“It takes so much to make a trailer, and there was so much to talk about all the time, like rocks,” says Dixon. “We talked a lot about rocks and the shape of rocks.” They also had long discussions about what the mysterious cabin in the woods should look like. “The cabin needed to look old, and not like a cozy place but someplace where conspiracy theories come from,” Worley explains.
“We didn’t want the cabin to look like every other mysterious cabin you’ve ever seen. But, at the same time, you only get to see the cabin for a second in the trailer and register it as creepy, so it took some trial and error to get it right.”
“So much went into this trailer,” he continues. “It’s really the story for season one of the series we’re pitching, so we needed to have everything fit the story while building something that gets crazier and crazier in 90 seconds.” (Watch Dixon’s behind-the-scenes talk on developing the animated series here.
Creating a World and Pitching It
To ensure a cohesive, stylized look, the team created a huge amount of concept art, particularly paintings that were used as a guide for creating props and building scenes in Unity. They also created a library of world-building assets that could be used repeatedly to populate scenes, including simple painterly details that helped break up large spaces in the frame. Music was created by Grammy-nominated Cody Fry.
To bring the wilderness to life, they used Cinema 4D’s Vertex painting features to distinguish various parts of the trees—green for branch length, blue for leaves and red for height. Next, they used Unity to dial in the speed and intensity of wind in various scenes. “That trick to get procedural motion worked really well, and I learned it from Jane Ng, one of the artists who worked on “Firewatch,” Dixon says.
All of the work Dixon, Worley and the rest of the team put into the trailer also helped them finish the script for the six-season series they’ve envisioned, as well as a very elaborate pitch deck. So far, pitch meeting with major studios have gone well, but they have yet to sell the series.
“I think what we’ve learned is that we’ve created a story that’s right in the center of the Venn diagram that is animation for adults plus weird sci-fi,” Worley says. “It’s kind of crazy, but we’re still working on pitching it.”
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.